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Who’s Hot/Who’s Not in Sprint Cup: 2009 Samsung 500 at Texas Edition

Jeff Gordon’s large winless streak came to an end Sunday in Texas – where everything is big. But while Gordon had a giant weight lifted off his shoulders, other drivers felt huge swings in the points. Greg Biffle gained eight spots in the standings after his third-place Texas run, while Mark Martin’s sixth-place finish gained him nine positions. AJ Allmendinger’s ignition issues relegated him to a 34th-place finish and lost him five spots in the points, while Kevin Harvick and Michael Waltrip each lost four places after lousy runs. Inside the top 12, most drivers changed at least one spot, with Matt Kenseth leading the charge, climbing three spots to ninth after running fifth in Texas. Gordon also is seeing his points lead stretch, as you will find out in this week’s list of HOT, WARM and COLD drivers.

HOT: Gordon – See… we take him off the HOT list one week and look what happens – he wins. The No. 24 team is now the only one in the Cup Series that has lead-lap finishes in all seven races. Gordon leads all drivers in top-five and top-10 finishes, and has padded his points lead up to 162 over new second-place man and teammate Jimmie Johnson. The next track on the schedule is Phoenix, where Gordon has one win, eight top fives and 15 top 10s in 20 starts – so expect him to keep rolling along through the month of April.

HOT: Johnson – Martinsville’s race winner came just a touch short in Texas, as Johnson’s No. 48 closed in on Gordon in the closing laps – but could not pass him. Johnson now has finishes of third, first, and second in the last three races to vault to runner-up in the season standings. And looking ahead, the Lowe’s team also has three wins, six top fives and nine top 10s in 11 starts in Phoenix – even more impressive than teammate Gordon.

HOT: Tony Stewart – A fourth-place finish in Sunday’s Samsung 500 is Stewart’s second top five with his new No. 14 team. Though Stewart never had a car that could lead many laps, he continues to show that his car is a contender. His stats at the coming race in two weeks are not as impressive as Gordon’s or Johnson’s, but he did win a race at Phoenix with the No. 20 team during his rookie year in 1999.

WARM: Jeff Burton – Burton is part of Richard Childress Racing’s quietly consistent brigade. After a dismal start to the season, with finishes of 28th and 32nd at Daytona and California, the No. 31 team has finished in the top 15 in every race since, including a ninth-place effort in Texas that bumped Burton up one spot to 12th in points. Burton fans also should be encouraged by the fact that the Cup Series moves next to Phoenix, where the veteran has won twice. But maybe winning isn’t always a good thing; the last time Burton went to Phoenix’s victory lane in 2001, he began a five-year winless streak in the series.

WARM: Juan Pablo Montoya – Similar to Burton, Montoya has only two finishes outside the top 15 and sits 13th in points (one spot behind Burton). Montoya and Burton each have only led in just one race this season, though Burton led 60 laps in his race while Montoya led just one. Unlike Burton, Montoya has struggled to get around the Phoenix oval, producing no top 10s in only four starts at the track to date.

WARM: David Reutimann – After capturing his first career pole in Texas, Reutimann put his (and Aaron’s) money where his mouth is by keeping the No. 00 in the top 10 for much of the race. The Beak didn’t let a pit road miscue during green-flag stops ruin his run, leading his team to an 11th-place finish. Reutimann also sits 11th in points seven races in, proving that his early season luck is not a fluke.

COLD: Joey Logano – Four straight finishes of 30th or worse do not bode well for the only rookie that now has competed in each Cup race this year. Sunday’s race started well for “Sliced Bread,” beginning the day by starting 10th, but he wasted no time falling back. Logano ran around 30th for most of the day and ended up finishing there. A scrape with the wall and an ensuing green-flag pit stop only added to the misery of the last month for the Home Depot No. 20 team.

COLD: Bobby Labonte – His season started so well, we here at Frontstretch even wrote an article arguing whether or not the No. 96 could remain in the top 12. Since then, Labonte has finishes of 40th, 22nd, 16th and another 40th Sunday in Texas, sending the 2000 Cup champ hurtling down to 26th in points. Mostly a victim of bad luck in his bad finishes, Labonte will probably rack up an average finish the rest of the season just high enough to avoid being labeled a COLD driver – but just low enough to go almost completely unnoticed.

COLD: Aric Almirola – Though not in the Rookie of the Year running (because he ran 12 races last season), he is basically a rookie – and his season has been a disaster. Driving the once glorified No. 8 EGR Chevy, Almirola’s 21st-place finish a month ago in Atlanta is sandwiched directly between six finishes outside the top 30. This leaves the underfunded No. 8 team outside the Top 35. Reportedly, EGR officials will meet today to decide whether or not they will continue to Phoenix. Ironically, the No. 8 car nearly won that same Phoenix race one year ago with Martin at the helm. Now, we’re not sure if they’ll even be around to compete…

Here are some other HOT and NOT tidbits from the racing week in Texas:

HOT: Sprint Cup banquet likely moving to Las Vegas – After raising the ire of many New Yorkers the past few years, NASCAR officials and the City of Las Vegas are in the final stages of agreeing on a plan to move the year-end banquet to Sin City. Though a longer flight for many, Vegas is a good home for a banquet that was growing out of place in the Manhattan cityscape. Maybe some Vegas spice can spread into the usually dull, scripted ceremony that the affair has become.

NOT: SportsCenter trying to cover NASCAR – I know I don’t write the TV column anymore (and Phil Allaway does a wonderful job of it), but I have to harp on ESPN’s lousy coverage of NASCAR within its regular newscast SportsCenter. On Sunday evening, for example, the two anchors spent more time doing NASCAR impersonations than they did doing the replay of the just-ended race. ESPN brass told me last season that two completely different entities handle the production of SportsCenter and the production of its NASCAR telecasts. But for a sport as popular as NASCAR, SportsCenter is doing a lousy job covering it.

HOT: Silly Season starting to heat up – The season may seem young, but suddenly we find ourselves nearly 20% into the 36-race schedule. Just recently, rumors have started cropping up about the future of Martin Truex Jr. at EGR in the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy. With the future of Almirola and the No. 8 in doubt, EGR may only have two full-time teams soon, and that could initiate a clause that would allow Truex to opt out early from his contract and could diminish GM’s funding of the operation. This also has fueled rumors that Bass Pro Shops is ready to jump ship and fill out the balance of Ryan Newman’s sponsorship void on the No. 39 at Stewart-Haas Racing. Rumors lead to more rumors, which means that people are speculating as to where Truex will end up. Some are reporting that Joe Gibbs Racing may be interested in placing him in the No. 20 in place of Logano, something JGR officials vehemently deny. There has been talk about the company trying to start a fourth team (Farm Bureau Insurance is sponsoring the No. 02 for a limited schedule this season) but that is nowhere near finalization.

At the same time, there are talks about the futures of Scott Speed and Allmendinger in NASCAR, since the new American Formula 1 team is looking for a driver. Speed has already denied wanting to return to F1, but Allmendinger still has no guarantee of a full-time Sprint Cup ride, so he may consider making the jump. At the same time, his schedule uncertainty reportedly has garnered him at least one call from JGR, who may be inquiring about his services for the part-time No. 02 team that will run this season or, who knows, maybe the No. 20? The leaves of spring may be turning green, but the talk is already resembling the orange of the fall.

NOT: Hating on Logano – Despite the fact that he is a COLD driver and that there is at least some speculation regarding his future, people need to lay off the 18-year old rookie. The stars lined up for Logano to drive a full-time Sprint Cup car a bit earlier than anyone expected and, let’s face it, the Cup Series is hard! He won’t win a race this year and maybe not even next, but if you need proof that patience can yield positive results, look at Allmendinger. He was far from ready for the Cup Series in 2007, his rookie year, and showed it. However, after getting taken out of the Red Bull car for a few races, he seemed to find his way midway through 2008. Now, in 2009, Team Red Bull is probably wishing they stuck with him, as he has a team in the No. 44 at RPM that has underperformed since its existence well inside the Top 35.

So give Joey a chance, folks. There is a reason that Joe and JD Gibbs, his team, his sponsor and even Martin believe in this kid.

The Sprint Cup Series is off next week, but a dance in the desert at Phoenix International Raceway follows. Turn here to see who’s still hot after the desert trip and who leaves the sands with a few spines in their seat.

Listen to Doug on the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury 120 racing show with Captain Herb Emory on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. You can also hear Doug as a pit-road reporter for the GAS (Georgia Asphalt Series) Radio Network. The next race is Friday, April 11 in Anderson, S.C.

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